Cardinals fall short to 49ers; excited about what future holds

The scenario was all laid out for the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday: beat the San Francisco 49ers in their regular season home finale, and get some help from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in New Orleans in the form of a win over the Saints and a trip to the playoffs is theirs.

I didn’t say it was an easy scenario, but as the pop culture phrase goes, “It is what it is.”

The 49ers were already playoff bound, but they still had something to play for: seeding in the tournament, so they weren’t about to lay it down at University of Phoenix Stadium.

San Francisco jumped out to a 17-0 first quarter lead, before surrendering that lead to Arizona, only to have kicker Phil Dawson calmly knock down a 43-yard field goal as time expired, giving the 49ers a 23-20 victory over the Cardinals.

Things already didn’t look too good for Arizona, as the Saints were rolling the Buccaneers at the same time they were at war with the 49ers.

New Orleans pounded Tampa Bay 42-17 at the Superdome, effectively ending the Cardinals season. That didn’t stop them from playing their NFC West foe hard down to the final seconds.

Arizona finished the season with a 10-6 record – quite an accomplishment in head coach Bruce Arians’ first season in the desert.

“We missed the playoffs, which is very, very disappointing,” Arians said. “We didn’t want to lose a home game and I thought after we got it back tied we would win it.”

“They made two great plays to win the football game, and we didn’t,” Arians said. “So, hats off to them.”

Arians was asked afterwards if they were aware of what was going on at the Superdome on the sideline.

“It didn’t matter,” Arians said. “This is the only game that mattered at the time.”

Things couldn’t have started off any worse for the Cardinals.

Already down 3-0 in the first quarter, quarterback Carson Palmer threw an interception – his 22nd of the season – to linebacker Na’Vorro Bowman inside Cardinals territory.

When you hand the ball to the 49ers like that, they make you pay and they did.

Five plays later, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick found wide receiver Anquan Boldin in the right corner of the end zone for a touchdown. That put San Francisco up 10-0.

The Cardinals promptly went on a 12-play drive that ended with kicker Jay Feely missing a 37-yard field goal.

The 49ers took over and went 72 yards down the field, culminating in a Kapernick to Vernon Davis touchdown. That put them up 17-0.

All the energy seemed to be sucked out of University of Phoenix Stadium after that score.

“It was real tough,” wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said. “You’re facing the No. 2 ranked defense in the NFL, and they’ve got a 17-point lead.”

“Those guys are pinning their ears back ready to go,” Fitzgerald said.

Despite the deficit, I had a funny feeling sitting up in the press box: I thought the Cardinals had the 49ers right where they wanted them.

The Cardinals defense is widely regarded as being one of the best in the league. As we’ve seen all year long, the defense can take over a game and shut down a whole half of a football team when it wants to. The offense just needed to hold up their end of the bargain by scoring some points on that No. 2 defense, which it did from that point on.

Palmer would hook up with tight end Jake Ballard on a one-yard touchdown pass shortly before halftime, which cut the lead to 17-7.

Both teams would go scoreless in the third quarter, setting up a big comeback by the Cardinals in the fourth quarter.

The defense did its part to limit Kaepernick, running back Frank Gore (14 yards on 13 carries) and the rest of the San Francisco offense, allowing Palmer and the offense to go to work.

Feely hit a 49-yard field goal to cut the 49ers lead to 17-10.

After the teams traded off possessions, Palmer connected with wide receiver Andre Roberts on a 34-yard touchdown play, which tied the game at 17.

Suddenly, all that energy that was missing from the building came back. The fans had new life and the team had new life.

It was a field goal contest after that, with Feely and Dawson trading off boots through the upright.

Ultimately though, Dawson came out on the winning end of this 3-2.

Despite coming out on the losing end of this battle, quarterback Carson Palmer couldn’t have been more proud of lining up alongside his teammates, because he knew they weren’t going to fold no matter what.

“No chance of that happening,” Palmer said. “No chance of us folding and shutting it (down), regardless of what was going on in New Orleans, regardless of the scoreboard.”

“We fought and we fought hard,” Palmer said. “We’ve got a lot of character in that locker room and as much as it stinks to have this feeling right now, I’m very excited about the future.”

Palmer went 28-of-49 for 407 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. He eclipsed the 4,000 yard passing mark for the second straight season, and the fourth time in his career.

Palmer also made history on Sunday, becoming the first quarterback to throw for over 4,000 yards with three different teams (Bengals, Raiders, Cardinals).

“Personal goals are always nice,” Palmer said. “That wasn’t one of my personal goals.”

“I wasn’t worried about it, or thinking about it,” Palmer said. “I was thinking about wins and losses.”

The Cardinals would’ve much rather been 11-5 and in the playoffs than 10-6 and out of the playoffs.

All in all, the locker room was pretty quiet afterwards (as it is after most losses), but every player who was free to talk was excited about what the team accomplished in year one of the Bruce Arians/Steve Keim era.

“This team is a bunch of winners,” defensive tackle Darnell Dockett said. “I have been in this organization for 10 years, and I’ve been on some teams that in a game like that, they would’ve clocked out, but this team was different.”

“This team made up our minds, San Francisco is going to go to the playoffs, (but) we are going to wound two or three of them and send them into the playoffs limping.”

Linebacker John Abraham was one of the key components to the Cardinals success this season, coming over from the Atlanta Falcons in free agency.

Because of his outstanding play this season, Abraham was named to his fifth Pro Bowl team, joining cornerback Patrick Peterson and special teams extraordinaire Justin Bethel.

Abraham sees exactly what everyone else on this team sees: character men playing on a character team. That excites him heading into next season.

“We built winners,” Abraham said. “We knew we had a winning squad.”

“We started off kind of slow and dug ourselves a hole at the beginning of the year, and I think that’s why at the end of the year we had to fight to get in.”

“I’ll put that on us and we will try and get it going next year.”

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